The phony footballer who fooled us all

To play football at an elite level you need to have phenomenal talent, sky-high fitness levels, and great contacts. But Ali Dia showed that fortune also favours the bluffers. 20 years ago, he debuted in the Premier League, despite never having played professionally before. How did he pull it off?

It was November 1996 when Southampton’s manager, Graeme Souness, got a call that would change the history of English football. On the line was somebody claiming to be George Weah, the first non-European Ballon d’Or winner, who was playing for Milan at the time. The Liberian striker told Souness that he had a cousin from Senegal who was currently without a team after having played for PSG. The player’s name, he said, was Ali Dia.

Souness needed a forward because his team was currently plagued by injuries, and he was on the lookout for players without a contract. He signed Dia up for a one-month contract.

In training, Dia was nothing special, but he was a good runner and could shoot on target. He was decent enough not to draw too much attention to himself anyway. After a few days spent exercising with his teammates, he was picked for a Premiere League game and given the number 33.

And so, on 23 November 1996, in a match at Elland Road against Leeds, the legend of Ali Dia was born. In minute 33 of the match Matt Le Tissier – the greatest player in Southampton’s history – was injured. Souness sent the Senegalese on to substitute him.

Things got off to a surprisingly good start, with Dia even managing a dangerous shot on goal. But after that, the charade fell apart, as it became increasingly clear that Ali Dia had no idea how to play professional football. He ran around the pitch like a headless chicken, he didn’t know where he was supposed to be, and he was visibly annoying his teammates.

Souness took 43 minutes to call him back to the bench. A surprising amount of time. Southampton ended up losing the game 2-0. Their star signing had crashed and burned.

The next day, Ali Dia didn’t show up to training. He said he was going to get treatment for an injury picked up during the game. He never came back.

The club contacted George Weah to ask if he’d heard from his cousin. Weah told them he didn’t have a cousin called Ali Dia, and that he’d never phoned Souness.

 

Ali Dia had fooled them all. He was 31 and he’d never played professional football in his life. He’d been in a few amateur teams in France, Germany and Finland, and was, at the time, playing for Blyth Spartans: a semi-professional team in England.

The man who’d called Souness was just a friend of Dia’s from the University of Northumbria – where Dia was studying. The Blyth Spartans coach hadn’t believed his eyes when he saw his player running around on TV in the Southampton kit. After Ali’s remarkable, if brief, sojourn with Southampton he signed with Gateshead, where he played eight matches. Very little is known about the life of Ali Dia after his Premier League debut, except that he graduated from Northumbria in 2001 and went to work in a sports agency.

Wherever he is, he’ll always be able to tell his grandchildren that he once played with the very best, thanks to his Premier League bluffing skills.


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